What Is Ghee? Is It Healthier Than Butter?
If you've ever done a Whole30 or tried to eliminate lactose, you probably know that ghee is made from butter, but has some significant differences. Ghee has been a staple in South Asian cooking for centuries, and has recently become popular among the keto and paleo diet communities. But, what is ghee, exactly? And, is it actually any healthier than butter?
Pictured recipe: Easy Ghee
Ghee is "clarified butter," made by removing milk solids from butterfat.
First, a quick refresher on how butter is made, and what it's made of. "Butter is a dairy product made from the solids remaining after churning whole milk or cream," says Tessa Nguyen, RD, LDN, a chef and registered dietitian at Taste Nutrition Consulting. "It includes both milk proteins and fat."
Ghee, on the other hand, has no milk proteins. "Ghee is butter that has been clarified, which means all of the milk solids have been removed," Nguyen says. "This is typically done by simmering butter until the milk solids separate from the fat, [then skimming the milk solids away]."
Ghee and butter are both saturated fats. Neither is more or less healthy than the other.
Although ghee is embraced by certain fad diet communities, it really isn't any "healthier" than regular butter. "Ghee and butter are both considered saturated fats, so I would not deem one healthier than the other," Nguyen says. The USDA's Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of your total daily calorie intake. For someone eating 2,000 calories per day, that comes out to about 22 grams of saturated fat, or about 3 tablespoons of butter or ghee.
And, although ghee has been stripped of its milk solids, it isn't technically allergen-free. "While the milk solids (including the proteins) are removed from ghee, those with a milk allergy should still avoid eating ghee," Nguyen says. Trace amounts of milk solids may still be present, and the risk of having an allergic reaction is still possible. That said, someone who is lactose-intolerant but not allergic can likely eat ghee without symptoms or negative consequences, since the lactose levels in ghee are practically zero. (FYI: Butter is also very, very low in lactose to begin with, so may be tolerated by someone who can't eat lactose.)
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Butter is more flavorful, and better for baking. Ghee is better if you're cooking at higher temperatures.
Despite their high saturated fat content, both ghee and butter can be part of an overall healthy diet. That's good news, because both are delicious, and great to cook with. "Butter is a versatile ingredient used in a variety of cooking applications across many cultures," Nguyen says. "It's a wonderful way to boost the flavor of vegetables, add texture to baked goods, and enjoy as a smear on fresh bread." In baking, it's important not to substitute ghee for butter. The molecular structure of unmelted butter (milk proteins and trace amounts of water are "suspended" in the fat to make a creamy emulsion) gives baked goods an aerated texture as they cook—substituting ghee would lead to a flatter, denser product. Try butter in this Butter Pastry Dough (the best for pies!) or as a spread on our Grilled Corn on the Cob with Pesto Butter.
On the other hand, ghee is better for high-temperature cooking. If you've ever added butter to a too-hot pan and noticed it turn brown and then black, it's because the milk solids burn at too high a temperature. This doesn't happen with ghee. "Ghee has a much higher smoke point than butter, since the milk solids have been removed," Nguyen says. While regular butter starts to smoke at 300°F, ghee can be heated to about 480°F before it smokes. "This is ideal for roasting, sautéing or any other cooking application that requires high heat," she says. Ghee is also less flavorful, which means it really takes on any flavor or seasoning you add to it, which makes it a chameleon fat of sorts. One thing to keep in mind is that ghee will still be solid at room temperature or colder because it's a saturated fat, just like butter. Therefore, it can be hard to scoop out if you store it in the refrigerator or in a cool place. We like ghee in our Goat Curry and this Indian-Style Sautéed Okra.
Long story short, ghee is not any healthier than butter.
If you're buying ghee because you think it's a healthier alternative to butter, you're wasting money (ghee is also significantly more expensive). But, because of its higher smoke point and milder flavor, ghee is a versatile kitchen staple that can be used instead of butter when you're cooking at high temperatures.